Claire: Hey Jordan, I have a test for you.
Jordan: Oh yeah. What is it?
Claire: I heard, if you think that you might have Coronavirus, you should take a deep breath, hold it for 10 seconds, and if you can do that without coughing for 10 seconds, you’re good.
Jordan: All right. I’m going to try it.
Claire: All right. I’ll time you, okay?
Claire: Okay. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
Jordan: That’s it?
Claire: That is it. Apparently. You don’t have the coronavirus.
Jordan: Perfect. That’s nice to hear. That can’t be a real test, though.
Claire: No, it’s definitely not. It’s just another hoax floating around the internet.
Jordan: I’ve seen a ton of those.
Claire: Yeah, what kind of stuff have you seen?
Jordan: Well first I heard that if I already had a cold in January and February, which I did, that I probably already had COVID-19 and I’m probably okay. I also heard that 5G technology is to blame, and that they’re looking into that link. And I heard some stuff about silver or essential oils or vitamins that I can take and it would just kill this virus dead. A lot of that is going around.
Claire: Yeah, I heard two women in the grocery store actually talking about how they were cutting up garlic every day and just eating that, thinking that they wouldn’t get the coronavirus if they did that.
Jordan: Just garlic?
Claire: Just garlic.
Jordan: I also heard, of course, that a hairdryer can get hot enough to kill the virus and so all I got to do is fire that up and I’ll be all right. And the mother of all of them, I think that’s been going around. That is kind of in a gray area. I’m not sure. Is that this virus will just be gone, or at least almost gone when the warm weather comes.
Claire: Hmm. That would be nice.
Jordan: Yeah. I’m not going to count on it, but we’re going to get into all of the hoaxes and misinformation around COVID-19 on the show today. But first, as we do now, because this is a breaking story, Claire, give us a brief update on what’s happening in Canada today.
Claire: So we are expecting a huge announcement from the federal government, reportedly $25 billion to help Canadians and businesses get through this time. We’re also expected to get an announcement by the end of the week about changes to upcoming tax deadlines, potentially giving Canadians more flexibility to make tax payments. A number of provinces have declared a state of emergency, including Ontario, Alberta, and Prince Edward Island. The number of cases of COVID-19 in Canada is now at 424. Ontario has reported its first death, British Columbia reporting three more, and that brings the nationwide total to eight. As for new closures, Uber is suspending UberPOOL. You can still use all other Uber trips and UberEats is still available. Cineplex is closing all theatres across the country until April 2nd and CIBC says it is closing 206 of its locations across the country, as well as modifying hours of operation. You can find out which ones are open, which ones are closed on their website.
Jordan: When we’re glued to our social media feeds with all of this news and it’s coming a million miles a minute, and nobody seems to have any easy answers or any explanations, it’s not a surprise that we’re eager to seize on one when we do see it. There’s a reason we did that test off the top, and I have to confess that when I first saw it, I really did do it and I felt better for like 10 minutes. And I’m not naive. I’m supposed to be a journalist, but I’d seen it on some official public health looking letterhead. And it felt really good to think for a second that there was something that I could do right now to make sure that I didn’t have COVID-19. I realized almost immediately, of course, that it wasn’t real. But that quick feeling of relief, of feeling like I understood something in a completely chaotic situation, it was powerful. And all these things take to spread is a little bit of panic, that feeling of relief, the best of intentions and a quick share. And then it’s impossible to put them back in the bottle, and it’s a fight that we can’t win. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the thick of the fray anyway, doing their damnedest to make sure that you and I don’t fall for things that might make sense right now, might feel good, but could cost us all in the long run. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Jane Lytvynenko is the senior this information reporter at Buzzfeed News. She is probably extremely busy right now.
Jane: Very, very busy.
Jordan: The last time we talked to you, uh, we talked about how you debunk this kind of stuff in general. How has that changed, in a situation like this where there’s only one story?
Jane: So there’s only one story, but there is pretty much an infinite amount of misinformation going around right now. Last time we chatted, we were monitoring misinformation that was mostly targeted at China. And now the misinformation targets people here in North America and seems to be causing quite a bit of panic.
Jordan: Are people more vulnerable to this stuff in a crisis like this?
Jane: So here’s what we already know about misinformation. It really plays towards feelings of anxiety or anger or panic that people may already have. This has been true since disinformation has become a thing. And during a crisis, like the Coronavirus, people are already very, very stressed out, very anxious, and there’s a big information vacuum. That information vacuum is very quickly being filled with hoaxes, misinformation, disinformation, false cures, you name it.
Jordan: What kinds of stuff were you seeing as the story first started to emerge?
Jane: So when the story first started to emerge, there were sort of two big themes that we saw. The first one was that the Coronavirus was a bio weapon that was a falsehood that was spread by people who were financially or politically motivated for that narrative, uh, to take hold. Um, it is not true. Uh, what we know is that it started at a wet market in Wuhan, China. Um, the second thing that we saw were many, many videos of people getting sick, either fainting or just laying on the ground, and those videos, we just could not verify. We just did not know what was happening at the time and the, we didn’t have enough context for the images and the videos that were coming out of China.
Jordan: And how have these stories changed as the situation has evolved? You mentioned they’ve kind of moved location. But how does disinformation evolve, I guess, to adapt to the news that we’re getting?
Jane: Now people in North America are not watching the situation unfold, sort of, um, at arms length. Uh, now they’re experiencing it themselves. And so now the mis- and dis-information that we see is targeted at the people who are scared, who may be experiencing it, or are fearful of experiencing it. So this means mass text messages being sent out, falsely telling people that cities are going to get shut down, including public transit and roads. Um, this means false cures and snake oil cures or sort of just very bad health advice that’s going around. That is a lot of what we’re seeing now, really targeted at the population.
Jordan: Are you trying to tell me that just because at the top of this podcast, I could take a deep breath and hold it for 10 seconds, that doesn’t mean I’m safe?
Jane: Look, some of these false cures do seem outlandish, but at a time of panic, especially if you’re somebody who, uh, is not very well versed in medicinal sciences, or somebody who is very panicked, somebody who doesn’t have access to health information, you might sort of try these cures as an attempt to prevent it from getting to you.
Jordan: I’m not lying. I actually fell for that one. I figured why not? It can’t hurt to know that I can still breathe deep.
Jane: Breathing deep is very important in a panic, but it will not, uh, help prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
Jordan: Are you seeing hoaxes and scams that are unique to this particular virus or to disease? Or is this just kind of the case of the people who do these things, adapting their usual technique for new content?
Jane: It’s a little bit of both. Um, I honestly can tell you that I haven’t seen this volume of mis and disinformation and my three years of covering the beat. Um, so what we have is sort of existing players who have been spreading mis and disinformation, and we have people who have entered the field. But most of all, we have people sharing this stuff with each other. We’re not going to be able to know the source of this stuff until we have a moment to take a step back and really analyze all the data that we’ve been gathering over the last little while. But what we do know is that people in a panic have been sending this stuff to one another. And that is sort of something that we all can do to help stop spreading it.
Jordan: How do you handle the volume? Do you kind of divvy it up into categories? Do you just try to do it rapid fire as they come in? Do you try to have an overarching plan that gets the right information out there?
Jane: So for me, there’s two very important things. One is to keep an eye on the real news, real authorities. I have the CBC or news channels on at all times. And it’s really important for me to sort of understand the latest developments because the situation is changing hour by hour. But the second important thing is for people to keep sending me hoaxes that they see. Because a lot of this is based on group chats and Facebook groups, I don’t always have access to the misinformation that people might be seeing. So essentially I’m asking people to crowdsource any misinformation that they might’ve come across. And then I sort of, um, if I’ve already debunked it, then I’m able to send them back what we found, and if I haven’t, then I add it on to our running list of debunks.
Jordan: How do you handle the grey area? Cause I’ve seen a lot of this. Um, and Claire mentioned when we were recording the intro that she’s heard people in the grocery store, you know, talking about, well I’m just going to eat a crap ton of garlic and that will help keep me safe. Now eating garlic’s not bad for you. It’s good for you. But it’s not going to help with this virus. And I’m seeing a lot of information in that area, where it’s not kind of easily proven false. But kind of gives people false hope, if that makes sense?
Jane: Yeah. Look, it’s, we’re at a point in time where it’s okay to just say, we don’t know. We rely on the world health organization, the CDC health authorities here in Canada, to sort of keep us up to date with what they do and don’t know in terms of health cures. Um, the world health organization has been very, very good at tackling those false cures and that false hope. I think right now it’s really important to understand that with things like eating a lot of garlic or taking a lot of vitamin C, it’s important to not overdo it. It’s good to keep up a healthy immune system. It’s good to eat healthy. It’s good to get exercise if you can. It’s good to get some rest. But none of that is going to stop Coronavirus from spreading. And I think the important thing here is to remember how the virus functions, which is that it can be passed on from person to person, even if one of the people is asymptomatic. So with health cures, like eating garlic or eating lemons, you can boost your immune system with the good food that you might be making yourself while in isolation, but that does nothing to change the external conditions that the virus relies upon to spread.
Jordan: I wanted to ask you about the people who are behind this and what their motives are. Do we know anything about that? Is it about profiting off of this? Is it about just spreading fear and chaos? Do we have any idea what’s behind all the hoaxes?
Jane: Look right now, we have very little idea of where the hoaxes are coming from. We do know that hackers and bad actors online are targeting people in vast numbers. Cybersecurity researchers that I spoke with say that this is the highest volume, or getting to be the highest volume, of cyber attacks that they have ever tracked. And it’s very similar with mis- and dis-information. It’s really difficult for us to attribute where it’s coming from. But like I mentioned earlier, what we do know is that once a piece of mis or disinformation is online, the way it spreads is organically. Which means it spreads by your friend saying, Hey, I saw this thing online, or your parents or grandparents saying, Hey, I saw this, I’m passing it on. And that is the thing that we should be worried about right now. Making sure that the people around us are getting good information and are spreading good information.
Jordan: Are social media platforms doing anything differently?
Jane: They are. Social media platforms are working with local governments to try to mitigate how much misinformation and disinformation is spread on their platforms. From what I’ve seen, they’ve been removing things fairly quickly, but of course not quickly enough. Um, it is still spreading. And it’s important to note that over the last three years or so, social media companies, Facebook, Google, Twitter, have been under fire from activists, lawmakers, journalists for not doing enough to curb the spread of mis and disinformation on their platforms. And so as a result, they might not have a big robust infrastructure to target something that is this widespread globally. And it is important to remember that this is global. So while these companies primarily operate in English speaking countries, in countries where the majority of the population doesn’t speak English, those hoaxes are still spreading and the fact checkers, um, might not have as much experience in those languages, might not have as robust of an infrastructure to tackle these hoaxes, as we do in the English speaking world.
Jordan: What happens when some of the wrong information is coming from supposedly reliable sources. I guess I’m talking about Donald Trump, but he’s not alone, like there have been other officials sharing incorrect information. How do you deal with that?
Jane: Look, it’s a really difficult question in terms of what the authorities are telling us. But this is the case where we should rely on medical health professionals as much as possible. Many of them have been on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, trying to spread good information. The health authorities, like the world health association has been proactively holding briefings and updating their website with any hoaxes that might be going around. The positive side of this is that because this is such a global, um, such a global pandemic, there are reporters, medical professionals, authorities who are trying to get good information out there. The best we can do is try to find those sources and hope that if they do spread something that is false, they will correct. Because these organizations have a duty to correct their information.
Jordan: Before we let you go, can we play some really rapid fire debunking with some of the most common ones that we’ve been seeing out there?
Jane: Let’s do it.
Jordan: Okay. If I had a really bad cold in January, is there a chance that I had this already and I’m done with it?
Jane: Maybe. The symptoms are flu, coughing, sort of exhaustion. If those are symptoms that you’ve had, it’s not impossible that you may have had this. However, there have been some cases of people who have had the illness testing positive for it again, and it’s very possible that even if you’ve had the illness, you might still infect people around you. So the best health advice that there is, is to stay home, stay isolated, and try not to keep spreading it further.
Jordan: This virus will be gone when the warm weather comes, or at least it’ll almost vanish.
Jane: False, absolutely no evidence for that.
Jordan: Advil and ibuprofen and other antinflammatories can exacerbate the risk of me getting COVID-19.
Jane: This has been a tricky one, but so far there have been no peer-reviewed academic studies that show that this is true.
Jordan: I can use a hairdryer to kill this thing.
Jordan: It began with the onset of 5G technology, and we’re looking at a link.
Jane: Absolutely not.
Jordan: I can protect myself with silver and essential oils and vitamins and teas.
Jane: Absolutely not. And US authorities have been cracking down on anybody that says you can.
Jordan: What should someone do if they see something online that they’re worried as a total hoax and it’s being passed around in their Facebook group? How can they get it to you so you can debunk it?
Jane: First of all, report it to the social media network. Second of all, Google the information to make sure that it is false, and maybe drop the debunk in the conversation. And if it hasn’t been debunked already, please get in touch with me. I’m on Twitter. My handle is @JaneLytv. You will also find my email on there. My last name is 13 letters long, so I’m not gonna spell it for you. But please send any information that may not have been debunked already straight to me and I will do my best to debunk it.
Jordan: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your insane day to help us a little bit.
Jane: All right. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Jane Lytvynenko is the senior disinformation reporter at Buzzfeed News and she’s at home working there. I’m at home in my basement. Claire’s in her closet. Your probably at home too. Like you we’re doing our best to stay healthy and stay sane. And we want to hear from you. We want to know what your world sounds like. If you are staying home, what are you doing to pass the time. Are you bingeing everything on Netflix? Are you exercising for the first time in awhile? Are you learning a new language? Kudos to you, if you are. That’s a big one. Let us know. Record a 30 second clip of yourself. Just use the voice recorder on your phone, or even just take a video. We’ll just use the sound. And you can email it to email@example.com. We’re putting together a compilation of what locked down sounds like for us and our listeners. We may be physically apart during all of this, but we’re all in it together. Thank you for listening. Stay healthy. Stay safe. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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